A 27-year-old gardener, convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder with special circumstances, faces a sentence of life without parole in the slaying of a 49-year-old Laguna Hills nurse.
Timothy David Russell shook his head when the court clerk read the jury verdict finding him guilty of robbery, then dropped his head into his hands when the clerk announced that the jury also found him guilty of murder.
Russell, who had no prior record, was arrested soon after the July 3, 1984, slaying of Marilyn Lyon, a nurse at Saddleback Community Hospital, for whom he was a part-time gardener. Russell was also a supply clerk at the hospital. Mrs. Lyon was battered to death with a telephone.
Russell testified that he found Mrs. Lyon's body at her home but insisted that she was dead when he got there. Russell said he did not call police because he feared he would be implicated in her death.
Blood matching Russell's was found inside the house, and his fingerprints were found on a wall in the house and on the dining room table, which served as an exhibit in the small courtroom of Superior Court Judge Ronald Owen throughout the trial.
The key defense witness was a 14-year-old neighbor who said he saw someone other than Russell enter Mrs. Lyon's house the day of the slaying, then come out looking disheveled about half an hour later. The man was driving a car belonging to the victim's son, Scott, the witness said.
However, jurors later told Deputy Dist. Atty. Bryan Brown that they discarded the boy's testimony as insignificant.
Owen told Russell: "I know you are disappointed at the verdict, but I want you to know that your attorney (Ronald Brower of Santa Ana) did a magnificent job on your behalf."
The jury found to be true the special circumstance that Russell had attempted to rape the woman. Usually, acceptance of special circumstances means that jurors convene for a penalty phase to determine if the defendant should be given the death penalty or life without possibility of parole.
But Brown said his office chose not to seek the death penalty because of Russell's clean record.
Special circumstances were sought, Brown said, so that Russell could be sentenced to life without parole. A first-degree verdict without special circumstances means a sentence of 25 years to life, but defendants are eligible for parole after seven years. Under life without parole, defendants cannot get their sentences commuted until after 30 years.
Owen set sentencing for Russell for Sept. 20. Russell will automatically get a life-without-parole sentence unless Owen throws out the special-circumstances finding of the jury.